Unfinished conversations: Still unable to address my mother, two years later

In memory of Mary Jane Ellis

I have accepted an offer on my house and, if all goes well, I will be moving. Knowing that I’ll be looking to purchase a much smaller space, there is, after twenty-four years here, an urgent need to reduce the collected detritus and all the unwanted belongings that have accumulated over time. Two children, a dissolved marriage, and my own double-folded existence have left a mass—no, make that a mess—of stuff to sort through and clear out.

One evening I uncovered a shoebox of cards and letters tucked into the most unlikely cupboard in the basement. I brought it upstairs and sat down to sort through the contents. Anniversary cards celebrating a marriage that ended seventeen years ago; longer than that if you count the painful years of unravelling that preceded the formal separation. Birthday cards addressed To a Beautiful Daughter. And letters. From friends. From my mother. From another time and life. Some I kept, others I tossed into the recycling box. I opened none of them. It seems one cannot bury the self, but one can put it aside—until a later date.

My mother’s death, two years ago today, opened a raw vein, exposed a deep insecurity that I believed I had moved beyond. As a result, my faint efforts to articulate my loss have continued to come up against an impenetrable wall  of guilt and shame. That box of old cards and letters troubles old wounds. Likewise, yesterday’s the discovery of nearly two decades of prayer journals uncovered in  a container stored at my brother’s place compounds the pain. When I suggested that the journals be burnt, unopened, my other brother admitted he had read some and that her prayers had been focused on our father—no surprise there—and me. It seems I had been her pressing concern. Me. The daughter who failed her. The daughter who could not be a woman.

I have always insisted, to myself at least, that my mother was my one and only unconditional support through the years of my transition and beyond. That when she died, I lost the one person who really believed in me. But, in truth, we never got the chance to properly address the impact of the shift in our relationship. We always talked around the subject.

In the last month of her life, when I was finally beginning to try to confront the extent of the loneliness and grief my own tangled life journey has caused me—when I needed more than ever for her to assure me I was a good person and that she still loved me—she was already slipping away. As her lungs became constricted within her shrinking frame, her energy and cognitive abilities declined rapidly. We thought she needed rest, a break from our father. We didn’t know she was on her way out.

On July 6, 2016, one day after my dad was in a serious accident that would ultimately claim his life, my mother was rushed into the city with critically low oxygen levels. She ended up in ICU in one hospital while her husband lay unconscious on the stroke unit of another. I saw her the next day, and although disoriented, she was hungry and joking with the nurses. One day later she was barely responsive. The respirator was not helping as we’d hoped. On the third day, Saturday July 9, I received a call from the hospital. A family member was needed. Both of my brothers were out of town, so my daughter and I went down. Ginny was twenty-three at the time and had been very close to her grandmother. We spoke to the doctor and agreed that the respirator should be removed, but requested that we wait until my brothers could be there—one was a few hours away, the other six.

So Ginny and I kept vigil. Held her hands. Told her we loved her. My son was too distressed to come. When my brothers and their wives arrived, the respirator was removed and we kept her company through her final hours. Eleven days later, our father would follow her. Throughout those troubled weeks, I sat many hours by my parents’ bedsides. To my brothers though, whatever I do, whatever I have done, is never enough. I am the oldest and the odd one out. Always wrong. But as they’ve been supported by their wives and extended families, I’ve been alone with two adult children, the three of us shocked and bereft.

It has been a long two years now. My mother’s absence still sits heavy—an empty space inside me. I cannot address her yet. I have no words. I’d like to think she would be proud that I am writing, but she never wanted to read anything I wrote. It might have been too painful. Perhaps that’s why it’s so hard to write my grief now. We were, it seemed, so close. We spoke on the phone every week, shared our hopes and concerns. But what of what was left unsaid?

And what of the daughter she lost, the one in the cards and letters in the shoebox, did she mourn her? She saw me happy, for a while at least, in this new masculine form. If I could trust that she remembered that person, her unexpected son, in her last hours, could I move on and begin the grief process?

Or am I still mourning a lost self too?

Author: roughghosts

Literary blog of Joseph Schreiber. Writer. Reader. Editor. Photographer.

14 thoughts on “Unfinished conversations: Still unable to address my mother, two years later”

  1. This beautiful account, this work of mourning (Trauerarbeit), takes me to my mother’s apartment in an assisted-living facility where I have come to ask her what she thought of my book, which I had given her a week earlier.
    Did you hate the book? I ask first, knowing that sections of the book would have upset her.
    No, she says.
    Did you read it?
    Yes, I read it the very next day.
    Tell me what you thought.
    I can’t remember, she said. I’ll read it again.
    No, no need for that, I said. I’m glad you didn’t hate it.
    … Parents and their children. In our cases our mothers and we who have left the mould our mothers tried to fit us in. Yours gone, leaving no chance for further conversation. Mine exiting, short-term memory first, and no real chance to converse meaningfully.
    Thank you, as often before, for these moving thoughts.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you Theresa. I’m sure you’re right, even as a parent myself I know it’s complex. But from the child side, we never seem to stop wanting to know more.


  2. Thank you for sharing this, Joe. You will find that much of the business of moving on from this house to another will provoke memories and reflections, some of which will be bitter-sweet and others raw and painful. It is a process, a journey, and it will lead you to new feelings and hopefully some contentment. Take care of yourself, Lisa

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Joe, your writing are so honest and uncluttered that they have great impact – the sequences of your parents’ deaths is shockingly painful. And that shoebox is particularly poignant. We have such a need to be heard but we have a duty too to heed whether the hearer wants/is able to listen – your readers though are here to hear!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I think your honesty is a strength, Joe, and if you’re willing to keep confronting the things which are issues hopefully you’ll eventually reach a resolution. I have a child with gender issues which are still being worked out – whatever that child eventually decides I will be happy with as long as the decision makes them happy. I think that’s all a parent ever wants. Grief does not go away quickly or easily, and the blow you were dealt was a double one. I lost my dad three years ago now, and still miss him, but I have had also to deal with my mother’s grief – which in some ways is getting worse the longer she is without him. And that grief gives me a sort of guilt that I’m not able to do more for her, mixed with almost a kind of anger that she’s projecting her grief onto me when I’ve had my own to deal with. Families are complicated aren’t they. I hope the move and all that goes with it will ultimately prove to be cathartic for you. Hang in there, and share with your online friends if we can help.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you Karen. As you know I lost three people in short order—both parents and a close friend. My grief for my mother is the heaviest and hardest to access. I think I am only just beginning to chip away at the edges to allow some of the emotion to flow. Writing seems to be the only way to do that but it can’t be forced, I find.

      Liked by 1 person

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